The Power of Boredom

Gustave Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary in 1856. Flaubert captures and communicates the immense power of BOREDOM over human behavior.

Why does Emma Bovary do all the “scandalous” things that she does? Because she’s bored.

Why is dullness such a powerful impediment to attention?

I see this effect most powerfully in two games that I enjoy playing: poker and stock-picking...And I know myself well enough to recognize the problem. I get bored with the interminable and rigorous discipline that being a great poker player or a great stock picker requires.

From an ET note I wrote in 2015, called Rounders:

"To be clear, it’s not the actual work of poker playing or stock picking that I find boring. I could happily spend every waking moment turning over a new set of cards or researching a new company. And it’s certainly not boring to make a bet, either on a hand or a stock. What’s boring is NOT making a bet on a hand or a stock. What’s boring is folding hand after hand or passing on stock after stock because you know it’s the right thing to do.

The investment process that makes a great poker player or a great stock picker isn’t the research or the analysis, even though that’s what gets a lot of the attention. Nor is it the willingness to make a big bet when you believe the table or the market or the world has given you a rare combination of edge and odds, even though that’s what gets even more of the attention.

No, what makes for greatness as a stock picker is the discipline to act appropriately on whatever the market is giving you, particularly when you’re being dealt one low conviction hand after another. The hardest thing in the world for talented people is to ignore our mental “shriek of unused capacities”, to use Saul Bellow’s phrase, and to avoid turning a low edge and odds opportunity into an unreasonably high conviction bet simply because we want it so badly and have analyzed the situation so smartly. In both poker and investing, we brutally overestimate the edge and odds associated with merely ordinary opportunities once we’ve been forced by circumstances to sit on our hands for a while."

What I do know is that many of the market participants cannot abide this boredom, any more than I can stand a long string of boring poker hands or a long string of boring stock ideas. Boredom begets action, and it’s usually less-than-well-considered action... People will try to do SOMETHING. One way or another, boredom must be eliminated. It’s as much an iron law of markets as the impact of greed and fear. And it’s just as powerful.

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